Tuesday, December 23, 2008

My Father

No one likes to think about losing a loved one, but eventually each of us loses or is lost. Before that happens we have a compulsion to try to tell important people in our lives what we thought of them. Otherwise, regret traditionally follows.

As my father is advancing in years and seems to be toying with the notion of getting diagnosed with something heinous, I turn my attention to him. It never wavers far from him anyway, since we spent so much time together when I was young.

He was not a modern parent who hovers over every moment of an offspring's life in the current mode. Even if portable video had existed, he would not have immortalized my every act and made sure he was there to witness every school play, sports event and booger-eating contest behind the elementary school. Let's be reasonable. Reason is what elevates us above mere vessels of passion. Vessels of passion have a fine time riding their waves of unchecked emotion, but they can make quite a mess.

I shy away from describing life as a gift when it can go so wrong in so many ways, but I am grateful that my parents chose to be as responsible as they were after giving it to me and my siblings. I would rather have had a pool table than a baby brother back in the mid 1960s, but that wasn't my decision to make. We moved a lot and a baby brother was more portable. I've made my peace with that.

My father was a pain in the ass. Above all else he was dedicated to doing the right thing even if it inconvenienced him personally. Because this is a minority view, he was frequently frustrated, depressed and irritable. To a kid this does not look like a good advertisement for that lifestyle. But the value works its insidious way into your mind. Before you know it, you're being self-destructively conscientious as well. It may come out in chaotic and obscure ways at first. It may take a final form very different from the example of the previous generation. Still, it is there. At least the intention is there.

My father's devotion to the ideals of the institutions that raised him made him somewhat unpopular with many of the other inmates and functionaries of those institutions who had looser interpretations of the basic principles under which they were supposed to operate. He questioned authority not in a destructive way, but by insisting that it live up to the code it claimed to. He saw the larger picture in which the restrictions on personal gratification led to an overall higher standard for everyone. Take a little less, give a little more and it all comes around eventually.

Selfish bastards shortstop the part that comes back around, leaving the good guys holding a nearly-empty bag or the stinky end of the stick more often than not. The truly good just keep plugging, because they know that without them there would be nothing at all worth having. Society really would cease to function if everybody just went out and tried to get as much as possible for themselves. Witness it in action even now. So the poor guy with a conscience gets made to look like an idiot time and again. Or he receives hollow accolades from the grateful selfish bastards who pay tribute to the values without any intention of hobbling themselves with them. Only everyone knows at some level that the good guy really is holding everything together for the ones who can't or won't. For the very instant of the tribute, even the most cynical user feels genuine affection and gratitude for the grunt bending under the weight of stone.

My father, badly betrayed and abandoned by those who should have cared for him, was determined not to make the same mistake with his own family. Consequently, he made his own brand new mistakes. I can't think of any just at the moment, since he is omniscient, but he is human. Well, half human, anyway. I came to think he might be from some other race that lives by pure logic. Except when we made him go bullshit crazy mad by being bonehead kids.

For all his hard work and simple virtue, he had a curious attraction to the yachts and homes of the wealthy. He never did what was necessary to have those things, but never ceased to want them. That paradox marked his efforts throughout adulthood. He had an unfulfilled longing for certain personal accomplishments linked to a temperamental compulsion to put his own wants below the needs of others. As decades passed he seems to have developed more satisfaction in the service itself, but for a while he really did seem to be hoping for some recognition and compensation that would not materialize. A battle raged below the surface, sometimes barely below it, between his personal ambitions and what he saw as his higher self.

It was often painful to be his child. We could see that he suffered in ways we could not fix. When we went away to pursue education and work, we took away the family that he loved even as it made him turn purple and make strangling noises with rage. When we came back, we made him turn purple and make strangling noises with rage. At any family gathering we know before it's over we'll probably piss him off. That's how it is with someone who is the living embodiment of a conscience.

In church they say a person's hierarchy of devotion should start with God. Family comes below God. In the United States military forces, family comes below the job, too. I believe the military establishment would be just as happy if service members had no families. At best, service members' families might provide generations of faithful recruits. Short of that they're just a burden and a distraction. While I didn't feel we fell distantly behind the Coast Guard, I knew that when the orders came we would take them and that any relationships I had outside the immediate family had to bend or break accordingly. Work, and doing your job, was the highest calling. It made the family possible and it made one a useful member of society. Find something useful to do and do it devotedly.

All the fumblings and false starts of my father's children have stemmed from the search for that worthwhile thing to do. We saw his treatment at the hands of the service and were not attracted to that avenue, so we sought things that we could enjoy and stand to do, day after day. Everything reflects a gradual convergence with his sense of decency. The usefulness of some of it might be debatable, but it could have been worse. In the meantime, you gotta have a job. Do good where you can. My father squeezed himself into an ideal of service that's hard to match. In a better world, not even a perfect world, enough people would realize the need to pitch in and make lives of the sacrificial few unnecessary. For now, though, everything decent rides on people like him.

Try to remember that if you catch him hanging out in front of the TV in his lounging attire.

Was that a strangling noise I heard?

1 comment:

Rosie said...

Nice tribute. Thanks for posting it.